As the future of work drastically changes the way organisations and workers operate, it’s also going to transform the way we network with each other. Advances in technology such as cloud computing have already kickstarted this evolution.
For a start, it’s no longer confined to Mad Men-esque cigar lounges and bars. Networking can happen in many different places and formats, including on social media, dedicated communities, video meet-ups or physical events. This has many benefits, making it much more accessible to people outside of major cities, for instance, and increasing the diversity of attendees.
Now, it’s about to change all over again, because of the rise of 5G, artificial intelligence (AI) and AR/VR.
Networking becomes vital
First, the role of networking will likely increase in everyday professional life. By 2020, half of the UK’s workforce is expected to work remotely. Then there’s the increase in freelancing, gig work and digital nomadism. People are going to work from home, likely alone, much more than before.
Unfortunately, this can lead to isolation and loneliness. 40% of freelancers report feeling lonely at some point in their self-employed careers. Working from home removes people from day-to-day watercooler chat and real-world interactions with colleagues. To combat this, many sign-up to more networking events, online communities and social media groups. As increasing numbers take their work home, we can expect to see more dedicated communities spring up to address this need.
Businesses build networks
Savvy businesses will take advantage of this opportunity by building networks of freelancers and contractors who’ll be engaged with the company. Even when they aren’t actively working for the organisation, these workers will still interact with it because of the community. Engineering firm AECOM has created such a network for its contractors. This provides it with on-demand talent (who are in short supply in engineering) and helps keep workers up-to-date with opportunities and company news.
Networks can also benefit internal employees. Many workers now expect a consumer-level experience in their workplaces. Indeed, some schools of thought believe that organisations should begin treating their employees like internal customers. One surefire way to engage and retain them, therefore, is through a community.
Setting up a network within an organisation will help employees from different departments meet and connect with one another. It may uncover career ambitions that can be harnessed to meet future demands. Someone in HR may show an aptitude for numbers that leads them to be upskilled in HR analytics, for example. Others may use the network for mentorship, to find stretch opportunities or for help and advice.
This type of network becomes more important as businesses grow globally. Employees in large companies may not always meet and won’t know their colleagues in other offices or departments.
Connecting with customers
As marketing and advertising become more competitive, businesses may turn to networking as a way to add value for existing customers and to attract new ones. Networks can augment an organisation’s customer support, by providing another source of help and advice. Alternatively, a network can be set-up to encourage customers to share their experiences of a brand. Sephora’s Beauty Insider is one such example of this. Offering customers something extra via a network will build loyalty and help retention.
When networking becomes higher priority, a lot more communities and events will appear. Each one will need a unique selling point to attract members. Therefore, niche networking groups that focus on a particular industry, interest or pain-point will take shape. Some already exist, in the form of ‘women in business’, BAME and industry groups.
Mixed reality becomes real
Networking will get a boost when 5G and mixed reality becomes mainstream. Because 5G makes it possible to send more data to devices, streaming online content to VR, AR and mixed reality devices will become commonplace. Mixed reality is still relatively new compared to VR and AR, however, eventually, it will have a place in all meeting rooms.
Currently, online networking is missing an element of human interaction. Video and online chats limit how much body language is communicated. With mixed reality, people on an online call will feel much more real and present ‘in-person’. This will increase the value of online exchanges and mimic the non-verbal communication that occurs naturally face-to-face.
We’ve become accustomed to swiping left or right on potential life partners and soon the same could be done for future bosses, colleagues and mentors. Indeed, some dating platforms like Bumble have already realised this. Their dating platforms have been modified for business users, helping people quickly meet mentors, clients, suppliers and industry peers.
AI gets involved
Dating-style networks will pave the way for AI to get involved. A user’s data can be analysed to find their interests, career goals and experience. An AI can then match the user to likeminded individuals. This way, networking becomes more effective and aligned to people’s interests and ambitions.
However, for this to work, an AI will need a lot of data to work with. Something that may not be possible if users don’t give consent. Individuals’ trust in data use is at an all-time low because of various data scandals and breaches. Facebook and Whatsapp’s data sharing is a good example of this - breaking user trust in both platforms. Future networks must be privacy-first to avoid repeat scenarios.
An evolution for everyone
As we head into a new era of work, it’s just as crucial to focus on the stuff that’s happening outside of the office. That includes networking, which will become more user-centric, engaging and accessible. Technology is paving the way for many improvements, creating greater human connections and offering more options for communicating. People will be able to choose a method of networking that works for them. Whether that’s online, in-person or a mix of both. Enabling them to focus on the important stuff. Meeting other professionals, connecting with businesses and expanding their horizons.
Photo by HIVAN ARVIZU on Unsplash.